The BMW 1 Series has been a perennial runner-up in the family hatchback class, but a recent facelift could be about to change that. A new three-cylinder diesel engine is the star of this new 116d ED version, keeping CO2 emissions down to just 89g/km. A new Plus trim level also promises better value for money.
Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI 110 Ultra SE Technik
Outstanding interior, great handling and a new trim level.
List Price – £22,235
Target Price – £20,616
BMW 1 Series 116d ED Plus 5dr
Can a new engine and styling lift the 1 Series to the top of the class?
List price £22,560
Target Price £21,253
Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC Sport Navi
Updated Civic in new Sport trim gets you plenty of standard kit.
List price £21,430
Target Price £20,010
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI 110 Match 5dr
The new Match trim replaces SE and brings even more equipment.
List price £21,960
Target Price £19,867
Low CO2 emissions and sluggish performance often go hand-in-hand, but the Honda proves they don’t have to. Its 1.6-litre diesel engine pumps out a healthy 118bhp, whisking the Civic up to speed with little fuss or drama – even from low revs in the higher gears.
The BMW is next quickest. Work its three-cylinder engine hard and you won’t lose too much ground to the Honda and, unlike many three-cylinder cars, acceleration builds smoothly and without any obvious steps in the power delivery.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because the tall gearing fitted to this Efficient Dynamics model makes accessing the performance harder than it might be. In the suburbs, you’ll find yourself continually swapping between third and second gears to prevent the engine revs falling too low, while on the motorway sixth gear is really only suitable if the road is flat. Inclines and keeping pace with fast-moving traffic in the outside lane will force you to change down at least one gear.
The A3 and Golf use the same basic 1.6-litre engine and there’s little to split the two for outright performance. Instead, the main difference between the two cars is that the VW makes do with a five-speed gearbox whereas the A3 has six gears. It’s those more closely spaced ratios that make the Audi feel more eager when you need a sudden burst of acceleration in third, fourth and fifth gears. example.
RIDE & HANDLING
The Audi is easily the most fun to drive, with accurate, well-weighted steering and superb body control through corners. There’s lots of grip, too, which adds to its playful nature and means there’s little drama during quick direction changes. The only drawback to such tidy handling is a firm low-speed ride; the standard sports suspension on this Ultra version is partly to blame, but the Audi is comfortable enough on all but the worst roads and rides very well at higher speeds.
The BMW doesn’t feel quite so cohesive. On the one hand its super-quick steering makes it feel lively and alert – even slightly sporty – but on the other its high-walled energy-saving tyres make the front end of the car feel slightly vague. The tyres relinquish their grip earlier than you might expect through corners, too. More positively, the BMW controls its body movements pretty well through corners, no doubt helped by the lowered suspension fitted to this Efficient Dynamics model. However, the ride isn’t as supple as you might hope at low speeds: the car is too easily unsettled by potholes and expansion joints.
The Golf rides comfortably no matter what the speed or road surface. Its supple suspension irons out imperfections in a manner no other family car – save for more expensive versions in its own model range – could dream of. It’s not as agile as the Audi through corners, where you’ll notice a bit more body lean. However, it’s more capable and rewarding than the 1 Series, while its steering provides the most feedback of the group.
That leaves the Civic, which has certainly been improved during recent model year updates. Nevertheless, next to the Golf and the A3 it feels decidedly outclassed through corners, and although it grips harder than the 1 Series its steering is too light and remote. Worse, the Honda has the least comfortable ride of all four cars, particularly around town. Minor road imperfections also send tremors through the steering column to your fingertips. To cap off a disappointing performance in this area, the Honda also has the widest turning circle of the four cars, hampering low-speed manoeuvrability.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
The BMW’s interior hasn’t changed with the recent facelift, which means the switchgear is simple, the dials are clear and there’s a decent range of seat and steering wheel adjustment. It also means the pedals are still offset too far to the right, however, and the driver’s seat is fiddly to adjust, especially for height.
The Audi’s minimalist dashboard is the most user-friendly of the four while its driver’s seat, although slightly flat, is a doddle to adjust. It’s a shame that neither the Audi nor the BMW get adjustable lumbar support as standard, although this important feature is at least a reasonably priced option on both cars (at £195 and £230 respectively) and is electrically powered.
Only the Golf gets standard lumbar adjustment (albeit manually via a lever on the side of the seat) and its dash is almost as simple and logically laid out as the A3’s. As with the Audi, however, taller drivers may wish the steering wheel would adjust lower.
The Honda’s driving position fares worst here. The driver’s seat is short of lower back support (adjustable lumbar support isn’t even an option) and doesn’t go low enough, meaning that, for many drivers, the top of the steering wheel will block their view of the speedo. The rest of the dash is a bit of a mess, too, with the high-set readout seemingly unnecessary given the main touchscreen often shows the same information.
The Honda’s rear spoiler and chunky rear pillars mean it also provides the worst rear visibility of the four. The view out of the front is average at best, with the steeply raked windscreen pillars getting in the way. The BMW has a narrow rear windscreen and a substantial blind spot, but all-round visibility is much better than in the Honda. The boxier silhouettes of the Audi and Volkswagen make them easier to see out of in all directions. However, the Golf’s even broader rear screen and slimmer rear pillars just give it the edge.
A sizeable colour screen is the minimum we’d expect in a high-end family hatchback these days, so it’s no surprise that all of these cars get one. The systems in the Audi and BMW are controlled using rotary dials mounted between the front seats and flanked by shortcut buttons. The interface in both cars is very user-friendly but the BMW’s is marginally more intuitive thanks to its simpler, layered menus and the more logical steps required to perform key functions.
The Golf’s touchscreen isn’t far behind for ease of use and it too has physical shortcut buttons that run along the edge of the screen, allowing you to skip quickly between functions. However, the screen isn’t the brightest nor the quickest to respond to commands, and having to press certain areas of the screen accurately while driving diverts your attention from the road.
The Honda’s touchscreen might be the biggest here but it’s by far the fiddliest to use, with some small icons and a sporadically slow-responding screen. It never feels very intuitive, either. Finding a list of available DAB stations, for example, is a surprisingly long-winded affair. The Honda’s system might be awkward to use but it betters the Audi and BMW for equipment.
All three cars get sat-nav with western European mapping, a DAB radio, Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, but the Honda offers two USB ports instead of the single inputs in the Audi and BMW. It’s also the only car here to come with online connectivity (running from a connected smartphone) that allows you to download apps, including music streaming service Aha, as standard.
However, the Audi is the only car here to get voice control – albeit a system that’s only sporadically successful at recognising what you say. It also has the best sound system, with eight speakers and a decent depth of tone.
The 1 Series is a bit behind on kit, given that its six-speaker sound system delivers a tinnier sound and you have to pay extra for voice control. The Golf is the also-ran when it comes to infotainment. Sat-nav costs a hefty £750, although it’s worth noting that the Golf’s sound system is virtually on a par with the Audi’s for tone and clarity. Voice control is extra.
QUALITY & RELIABILITY
The Honda fares worst for perceived quality. For the most part, it’s interior feels solidly put together but small details, such as a poorly fitted blanking plate where the stop-start button would be on higher-spec models, disappoint. The quality of the materials isn’t anything to write home about, either.
As you might expect, the Golf feels a touch less expensive inside than the Audi and BMW, but it still has a classy aura. A variety of material textures and shades prevents the conservative layout from looking too dour, and everything feels well damped and precisely finished.
The quality of the BMW’s cabin materials and the damping of its switchgear just give it the edge over the Golf, but not the Audi. The A3’s interior feels top notch in every respect, and the quality of materials used, and the fit and finish throughout, shames most cars from the class above.
For all those classy materials, though, it was the A3 that fared worst for mechanical reliability in the most recent JD Power ownership satisfaction survey, although it was mainly the previous- generation model that these results were based on.
This was also the case with the Golf which, surprisingly, the same survey found to be the most reliable of the four models tested here, despite the mechanical similarities between it and the A3. Despite Honda’s reputation for reliability, the Civic was middle of the field in the family hatchback class according to JD Power, suffering slightly fewer faults than the 1 series.
All of these cars come with a three-year warranty. The 1 Series has no upper mileage limit while the Honda is covered for 90,000 miles, and the Audi and VW just 60,000. It’s also worth noting that all get UK and European roadside assistance included for three years, apart from the VW which gets only one year as standard.ressive.
All four cars come with alloy wheels, air conditioning, electric front and rear windows, cruise control and rear parking sensors. However, while the air-con systems in the three German cars simply blow hot or cool air into the cabin on demand, the Honda’s more advanced climate control can automatically maintain a set cabin temperature.
Disappointingly, both the Honda and the Audi miss out on automatic headlights and wipers, features that are standard on the BMW and Volkswagen. The 1 Series is unique in having keyless start, but the Civic and Golf get standard front and rear parking sensors. The Honda also has a reversing camera.
However, Honda doesn’t offer much flexibility if you want to add anything. For example, heated leather or electric seats, a sunroof and uprated headlights are available as options on the BMW, Audi and Volkswagen, but not on the Civic. Also, Honda offers just one free colour (red) compared with its rivals’ three no-cost colours.
*Part of pack
SAFETY & SECURITY
All four cars have been put through Euro NCAP’s crash test programme, and all were awarded the maximum five stars overall. However, look closely at the scores and you’ll see the Audi performed best for adult and pedestrian safety while the VW was found to be the best at protecting children.
Tyre pressure monitoring is standard on all four cars, but the Audi and Volkswagen each have one more airbag than the other two (seven versus six) and offer the option of rear side airbags, where BMW and Honda don’t. Automatic emergency braking – which can automatically apply the brakes if you’re closing too quickly on the vehicle in front – is standard on the Civic and Golf, but this important safety aid costs extra on the A3 and 1 Series.
All four cars come with an alarm and engine immobiliser. Security firm Thatcham’s tests show the Audi, BMW and VW all get full marks for their resistance to being driven away and good marks for their resistance to being broken into. The Honda proved weaker in both areas.
The Civic’s engine might deliver strong performance but it also serves up an unwelcome diesel dirge, no matter how gently you treat it. Even at tickover the cabin is filled with a lorry-like clatter, and there are too many vibrations through the steering wheel and pedals when the car accelerates. Factor in a significant amount of road noise and it’s hardly surprising it generated the highest decibels of all four cars at a 70mph cruise.
The Golf’s engine is noticeably more refined than the Civic’s, with fewer tremors through your hands and the soles of your feet. However, it’s still a little noisier than we’d like when worked hard, and the VW’s door mirrors also whip up plenty of road noise on the motorway. Road and suspension noise are well contained, though.
The Audi’s engine is smoother and quieter still. It stays hushed, even when revved hard, and the occupants are better isolated from vibration. However, the A3 does kick up a fair amount of road noise on the motorway.
For overall engine refinement, the BMW eclipses even the Audi. The 1 Series’ three-cylinder engine is incredibly smooth and hushed; you can barely hear it at a steady 70mph. The BMW isn’t perfect, though. There’s a fair bit of wind noise on the motorway, and the suspension clonks on poor roads.
The Civic just pips the Audi for the sweetest gearchange. Both cars have light, accurate shifts but the Honda’s is a little more positive. The 1 Series’ gearshift is a little stiff but preferable to the VW’s, which is notchy and has too narrow a gate, making it hard to know whether you’re selecting third or fifth.
SPACE & PRACTICALITY
If space for people is your key priority, the Honda is best avoided. It has very little head room in the front so anyone tall will, at the very least, feel claustrophobic or even find their head touching the ceiling. Things aren’t much better in the back, where there’s little foot space for rear passengers under the front seats. However, the Civic does have the widest cabin of these hatches and a virtually flat floor, so, although the firm, raised centre cushion is a bit uncomfortable, the Honda is the most accommodating for three rear passengers.
The BMW is usefully better in most respects. It has the most leg room in the front, enough head room for tall drivers to feel comfortable, and the space in the back is more than adequate for two adults. Access to the back isn’t so great, though, because the door opening gets fairly narrow where the wheel arch cuts in, and the middle rear passenger has to straddle a transmission tunnel.
The Audi has a touch less leg room than the BMW in the front and the back, but head room is better and the A3’s rear seats are easier to get in and out of thanks to the car’s wider door openings. The middle rear passenger has more foot space than in the BMW, but there’s still a tunnel to straddle. The Golf is impressively roomy, with more head room and only slightly less leg room in the front than the Audi, but more leg room in the back.
However, the Honda beats it for luggage space and cabin versatility. This car has a big boot and cinema-style rear seat bases that can be folded up to create a tall through-loading area. There’s also a below-floor storage space, but the boot has an awkward lip at its entrance. The Golf and Audi are the next best for carrying luggage, having practical, square load bays and standard, height-adjustable boot floors. The BMW’s boot is, likewise, usefully square in shape but is the smallest here, while a height-adjustable floor is not an option.
All have 60/40 split rear seats that fold by pressing a button or pulling a lever next to the outer headrests. Dropping the rear seats in the 1 Series and Civic leaves a completely flat, extended load area, although there’s only a slight slope in the Golf and the A3.
BUYING & OWNING
The BMW might have the highest list price, but it’s almost as cheap as the Audi to run as a company car. Over three years as a 40% rate taxpayer, the A3 demands a salary sacrifice of £4303, only £63 less than you’ll pay for the 1 Series. The Honda adds a further £37 to that bill, but even the Golf costs a reasonable £4512.
However, our real-world True MPG economy tests show that the Honda could make the most sense if you have to pay for your own fuel. It averaged an incredible 66.4mpg, around 12mpg more than its rivals. Based on current fuel prices this translates to a saving of around £650 every 36,000 miles.
The Civic doesn’t make nearly as much sense as a private buy, though, where its comparatively heavy depreciation makes it the most expensive to own over three years. Once all the bills you’re likely to face have been factored in, the BMW works out to be £82 and the Audi £417 cheaper to own than the Civic while the Golf is £1296 less.
However, that’s assuming you have the cash to buy one of these cars outright. If, like many, you plan to take out a PCP finance agreement, the A3 offers the lowest monthly repayments. On a three-year deal, limited to 10,000 miles a year and putting down a £5000 deposit, it’ll cost you £214 a month. The Golf ups that monthly bill to £235 and the BMW to £237, while Honda charges the most per month: £257.
We’ve been saying the same thing for the past two and a half years but the fact remains that, if you’re looking for a high-end family hatch, there’s no finer choice than the Audi A3 Sportback. It’s still the most fun in its sector to drive, the classiest inside and now even more affordable to run as a company car. In fact, the A3 doesn’t have any major weaknesses because, even in the areas it falls short of the benchmark (namely, performance and standard kit), it doesn’t embarrass itself.
Given the Golf’s similarities with the A3, it’s hardly surprising that the VW isn’t far off the pace. True, it isn’t as plush inside as its German rival, its infotainment system isn’t as user-friendly and the fact you have to make do with a notchy five-speed gearbox when the Audi gets a smoother six-speeder, is also rather galling. However, you do get lots of standard kit and a more comfortable ride for less cash.
The 1 Series finishes third. Its smart, well-built cabin and class-leading infotainment system remain intact. In addition, the new three-cylinder diesel engine is exceptionally refined and matches the Audi for CO2 output. Sadly, this Efficient Dynamics version is hampered by overly long gearing, and the 1 Series still isn’t very practical by class standards.
That leaves the Civic in last place. There’s no question that Honda has improved what was always a pretty mediocre car. However, the truth is that the improvements aren’t that big, so the Civic is still a long way short of challenging the class best.
Audi A4 1.6 TDI 110 Ultra SE Technik
For Brilliant to drive; sumptuous interior; excellent resale values
Against Rivals are faster; you’ll probably want to add a few options
Verdict A brilliant all-rounder, particularly for company car drivers
Volkswagen Golf 1.6 TDI 110 Match 5dr
For Comfortable ride; cheapest to own; plenty of standard luxuries
Against Sat-nav costs extra; no six-speed ‘box; so-so performance
Verdict Better than Audi for value, but not all-round appeal
BMW 1 Series 116d ED Plus 5dr
For Smooth and hushed engine; superb infotainment; low CO2
Against Overly long gearing; small boot; unsettled low-speed ride
Verdict Still a fine alternative, particularly for business users
Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC Sport Navi
For Strong performance; practical boot; real-world fuel economy
Against Poor driving position; unrefined engine; choppy ride
Verdict Improved but not by enough to worry the class leaders